Saturday 30 May 2015

Brave Acts of Donkey Work

Of previous jobs I had prior to Autism Works, one of the most enjoyable and fascinating was working on Durham County Record Office's Image of the Soldier project. Recently, I took the opportunity to revisit this in seeing the play Man and the Donkey at South Shields Customs House Theatre. Based around the life of John Simpson Patrick, a stretcher-bearer with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) during the Gallipoli campaigns of the First World War, Man and the Donkey commemorated a lesser-known yet highly commendable act of bravery a hundred years later with a very passionate and moving performance from the cast.

Working on the Image of the Soldier Project involved scanning, cataloguing and classifying images and records of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) before linking them to an online database enabling the public to access them, including being able to research ancestors involved with the DLI. What especially fascinated me was finding out more about often forgotten roles of those involved in supporting and supplying soldiers in the front line with food and medical needs, who often had to take huge risks under fire with little or no protection in making sure soldiers fighting in the front line had enough to eat and the wounded were attended to.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his donkey, South Shields
John Simpson Kirkpatrick (1892-1915), also known as 'Jack', was one such man. Born in South Shields, Jack worked with donkeys giving rides along the beach at South Shields during his youth before joining up with the Territorial Force before joining the Merchant Navy in 1909. In 1910, Jack deserted the Merchant Navy while in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. After working in various jobs as a steward and stoker on Australian coastal ships, Jack enlisted in the Australian Army as a stretcher bearer under the surname Simpson (his mother's maiden name) to avoid being identified as a deserter, possibly in the hope that it would eventually bring him back to South Shields to see his family again.  
Duffy, a handmade souvenir, made by cast member Viktoria Kay

At Gallipoli, Private Simpson would put his experience of working with donkeys back in South Shields to good use. In the early hours of following day after landing at Gallipoli, 26th April 1915, while bearing a wounded soldier, Private Simpson saw a donkey and made use of it to carry fellow soldiers. Fearless of going back and forth within the line of fire, Simpson and his donkey helped to rescue more than 300 soldiers, carrying them from the frontline to the shore where they could receive treatment. Private Simpson used at least four donkeys to help carry the wounded, after the donkeys themselves had been killed or wounded in action. On May 19th, after 24 days of negotiating 'snipers alley', Private Simpson himself was killed in action by machine gun fire, aged just 22.

John Simpson Kirkptarick, a man who gave his life so that others could live, has since been the subject of many petitions to be awarded a Victoria Cross or Victoria Cross of Australia. A hundred years after his death, the cast of Man and the Donkey Jamie Brown, James Hedley, Viktoria Kay, Gary Kitching, Dean Logan and Jacqueline Phillips made a very passionate and compelling case for John Simpson Kirkpatrick to be given the recognition his very brave actions were worthy of. Despite being reviewed in an inquiry, Unresolved Recognition for Past Acts of Naval and Military Gallantry and Valour, the tribunal for this committee decided in 2013 that no further awards were necessary as Simpson's bravery was representative of all other stretcher-bearers of the 3rd Field Ambulance.
'Lest We Forget', an ANZAC wreath in Brisbane, Australia

Though Simpson's story is well-known in Australia, back in Britain, including in South Shields, until recently Simpson's heroic deeds at Gallipoli have been nothing more than a historical footnote. Sometimes, history can have a short memory when commemorating those who gave their lives so others may do their duty and survive during conflict. Attention to detail, a quality expressed by some people diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, shows us that historically, much less honours have been given for exceptional bravery by those from non-fighting personnel involved in conflict. What I remember feeling so pleased with after the completion of the Image of the Soldier project was that it gave aspect of war was given the recognition that it deserved. As respected military historian Andy Robertshaw said at the launch of the project, military history isn't just about soldiers and guns, but also the personnel supporting them, including engineers, signallers and those supplying food and medicine to the front line, who often have to be just as brave.

Over 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War, now is as good a time as any to recognise and commemorate this often forgotten aspect of military history, looking at those who both risked and /or gave their lives, so that not only others could be saved, but also enable peace for future generations.  The Image of the Soldier project still provides a very invaluable resource to show us what our ancestors both fought and served for. Meanwhile, after the impact of Man and the Donkey residents of and visitors to South Shields, will likely take a moment to notice Simpson's statue with a strong sense of commemoration and pride for a forgotten local hero.

In memory of those who lost their lives during the First World War 1914-1918

RIP Jackie Fielding, director of Man and the Donkey, who tragically died just as the show finished its run following a brain aneurysm. No doubt she will have been delighted with the reception the show has had and the performances of the cast.